Conscious Business and Social Responsibility


One of the perplexing realisations I arrived at when exploring the subject of Conscious Business more deeply was this: A conscious business isn’t always a socially responsible one. Indeed, some highly conscious businesses are extremely toxic in their approach to their communities, their employees, their customers and the environment. Many of the most conscious businesses fly well below the radar of social and ethical acceptability, and know very well how to play the games of legal manipulation, minimal compliance and financial cleverness. Tax avoidance, getting around environmental and humans rights legislation, stealthily moving profits and money flows, all of these a very consciously practised by some businesses.

So, a conscious business may not necessarily be a socially responsible one.

The perplexing aspect doesn’t stop here. A socially responsible business may not be a very conscious one. It is possible to act out of a motive of social responsibility and still be environmentally very inefficient, to cause social harm out of lack of competence and ignorance, and for a bias towards certain aspects of social and environmental issues to lead to an over-reactive and short-term decision-making process that causes deeper difficulty and possible harm over the longer term. Many social enterprises go into bankruptcy because their lack of consciousness of their systems and their impacts, poor management of cash flow, and subjective decision-making got the better of the need for a more objective and broader view.

So, a socially responsible businesses may not necessarily be a very conscious one.

Now, the Conscious Capitalism movement is largely about social responsibility on business. Many of its authors and proponents have often equated ethics and social responsibility with the notion of conscious business. This has confused matters and undermined the goals of the two statements above. Here we use the word conscious in a way that is very bound up with “conscience”. Yet me can have a conscience and still lack consciousness.

And here is a third statement:

To be a conscious business, you don’t have to be socially responsible; but to be a socially responsible conscious business, then you also need to raise the level and quality of your business’s consciousness.

Put another way: To be a conscious business, it isn’t enough to become more socially responsible. Indeed, for each step or development in social responsibility, it becomes even more important to take a step in business consciousness.

Social responsibility is an inner and outer business gesture. We have to adapt and innovation our internal systems – the way we manage, inspire and lead our staff, the way we manage money flows, our internal values, the way we manage internal change, our physical working environment, our use of the materials and energy systems that result in the delivery of external products and services. To deliver more equality, more fairness, more internal sustainability, we’ll need to increase real-time, short and longer term awareness of the underpinning motives and systems that operate internally. We’ll need to question them, collect data about them, check the against external need and reality, check understanding of beliefs and values. We’ll need to be awake more than ever internally to ensure that our socially responsible ideals and rhetoric are realised in practice. “To realise you need real eyes”, goes the saying.

And that’s just internally – within our organisation. To be authentically and sustainable socially responsibly externally we’ll need to begin to understand our suppliers, partners, customers and other key players not only as behavioural “object” but as stakeholders in our activity. Responsibility means the ability to respond, and social responsibility is the ability to respond to social needs and realities. Now we’ll need to be more awake, not only to our values and motives but also to our effects externally, our “footprint” in the external sands, our reach and our impact (positive and negative). We’ll need more accurate and realm time feedback into our internal systems and need to be able to measure and assess the level and quality of harmony between our stated values and our realised actions. We’ll also need to integrate our altruistic agenda with our economic reality and ensure that our social responsibility activities are affordable in terms of financial health and money flows. There’s a huge difference sometimes between doing good and do-gooding. Do-gooding can be well-motived and yet be unhinged from community need or priority. A truly socially responsible business develops a competence to be able to respond. Indeed response becomes a core value and process. The business responds through an ethic of serving its community in ways that enable it to sustain itself both as a business and as a community citizen. More consciousness than ever is needed for this.

A socially responsible conscious business is able to sense:

– social impacts (Past, present and future) both internally and externally)

– changes in social priorities, demands and key measures in the external environment

– the internal and external values debate in human systems (employees, customers, other stakeholders)

– innovation and technology changes and emerging potential that support or resist social responsibility

– its physical, energetic footprint in the environment around it – from local to the four corners of the Earth

– threats to its ability to work in balance as both a socially responsible and a commercially realised organism

– the need to change the way it measures itself internally and externally

– the need for new and re-vision activity – its goals, strategy and overall mission

the critical path through messy ethical and social dilemmas

– the use, misuse, over-use of different kinds of energy

– when the subjectivity of some of its leaders may be clouding its judgement (conscience can be a very individual thing and open to misunderstanding)

Overall, a socially responsible conscious business has made a choice. This might involve, in its particular sector, a clear and sometimes dark and frightening awareness and even naming of how commercially successful it could be if it were to behave in a range of undetectable or manipulative ways that lay outside of accepted social responsibility. It then makes a choice of “conscience” to pursue a socially responsible path, investing some of those potential profits in a deeper, socially responsive relationship with its stakeholder base. Or it might involve a values agreement internally, again born of the wish to ethically “respond” from the ground up – “We are this kind of business”. In all cases, the business can better deliver on that social agenda if it behaves consciously across all of its internal and external processes.

But, be under no illusions, you can be a conscious business without social responsibility, and you can be a socially responsible business that lacks business consciousness. If you want to be a socially responsible conscious business, then it might just be time to thoroughly wake up.

Now, just to bamboozle you further. There is a hybrid form of social responsibility and conscious business that further muddies the water. This is characterised by a business that behaves socially responsibly purely from a motive to maximise profits. They are sometimes called “Bandwagon” businesses. They see social responsibility as a transient state, a commercial opportunity. Conscience plays no part, only the profit motive. Here we use organic ingredients in our sauces, or reduce our carbon emissions, purely because this will result in higher sales and thus profits. Here the profit motive (and the maximisation of shareholder return) drives socially responsible behaviour. Were the opportunity to subside, so would the socially responsible behaviour. Now, one company, of a lowered business consciousness could have no idea it is behaving this way and even convince itself it is acting out of a socially responsible motive. Such companies often (and not very consciously) drift into ever more diluted versions of their original socially responsible approach.A different company may be simply and very consciously “Playing the game” to commercial advantage, winning all kinds of ethical and environmental awards along the way.It may know very well what it is doing. Ironically, this second company is more conscious as a business than the first!

A company or organisation that wants to be conscious AND socially responsible from a place of conscience – a conscience it is internally awake to, will have to regularly look for drift in either direction – the direction of business toxicity, where profit alone drives behaviour regardless of social vales, or where social values enter into a rather clumsy and not very mindful tango with the principles of profit and green. The dialogue here has to be – yes you guessed it – conscious – there must be no fudging, collusion, and decisions need to be evidence based and stakeholder-checked. Dialogue needs to be regular, authentic and close to realm time.

Visit the Conscious Business Realm

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Pete Burden says:

    Hi Paul

    Good stuff.

    The only bit I am not sure about is your assertion that Conscious Capitalism is largely about social responsibility in business. I don’t think that is true – I think it is just as much about personal consciousness – John Mackey’s book for example has a whole section on becoming more conscious personally, on how to become a conscious leader.

    And that is certainly what we mean at Conscious Business UK. CB UK is about learning and practising skills that make us more conscious – in all its facets – mentally, emotionally, systemically etc – within a business context.

    But you are right it is easy to confuse these different aspects – so thanks for trying to sort it out!


  2. I agree Pete – I was caricaturing a bit for the purposes of the argument. Some of the original source material for Conscious Capitalism is indeed, very consciousness focused. But much of the more popular brand of it has tended to brand the field more simply in terms of “being less greedy”

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